THE NEW ASIAN HEMISPHERE | KISHORE MAHBUBANI
Will there be a tussle for global power in the coming decades? Not so much a clash of civilizations as a struggle to get a place at the high table of international influence. “The great paradox of the 21st century is that (an) undemocratic world order is sustained by the world’s most democratic nation states, the Western nations. At home they would never allow a minority of the population to make mandatory decisions over the majority. Globally, this is exactly what the West does,” writes Singapore diplomat and public intellectual Kishore Mahbubani in his new book, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East. In effect, he says, 12% of the world’s population controls global decision making.
This is a dreadful state of affairs. For example, the scandalous old arrangement through which an American heads the World Bank and a European the International Monetary Fund (IMF), would put our own domestic power-sharing deals to shame. The UN Security Council is a permanent cartel. The rules of the nuclear game are rigged in favour of the early atomic powers. The world cannot—or at least should not— be run like a closed-door club for long.
Singapore, where the author is based, doesn’t get much attention in the book
We hear and read a lot about the rise of Asia, and how the balance of global economic power is rapidly shifting away from the US and Europe. But global institutions and opinion do not reflect this power shift. They continue to be dominated by the Western countries.
How will the West respond to the rise of Asia? Mahbubani mentions two possibilities. One, it will embrace and accept Asia’s march towards modernity. Two, it will retreat into a fortress. The first outcome is obviously the better one. But the recent record is not very encouraging. The West—and especially the US—has reacted in a grouchy manner to any threat to its economic and political dominance. There were the episodes of Japan-bashing in the 1980s, John Kerry’s xenophobic attack on the Indian outsourcing industry in the 2004 US presidential elections and the frequent attacks on China (other than the times when Chinese money is used to bail out troubled Western banks).
It is quite likely that the message of this book will be misinterpreted as a polemic against the West. Actually, this is not a divisive book. Mahbubani recognizes the fact that Asia has learnt a lot from the West. “Asia took off by imbibing the seven pillars of Western wisdom,” writes Mahbubani. These pillars are: free-market economics, science and technology, meritocracy, pragmatism, culture of peace, rule of law and education. He repeatedly doffs his hat to what the West has taught and achieved (I wonder if Mahbubani should have avoided concepts rooted in time and culture, such as modernity and Westernization, and described these seven factors as the pillars of liberal capitalism. Would his message have come through with even more clarity?).
The New Asian Hemisphere:PublicAffairs, 314 pages, $26 (around Rs1,000)
But Mahbubani has been extremely fair. Asia’s troubled relationship with the West— from the colonial era to the 21st century—has not been completely harmful to it. Asia has both suffered and learnt a lot from the West. Mahbubani steers clear of the beguiling idea that Asian societies are in some way fundamentally different from those in the West. The idea of a unique set of “Asian values” does not find any mention in his book.
Here, Mahbubani seems to differ from Lee Kuan Yew, the man who oversaw the transformation of Singapore from a poor colonial trading outpost into a rich country within a few decades. In a 1994 interview for the American policy journal Foreign Affairs, Fareed Zakaria asked Yew: “Is there an Asian model?” Yew answered: “I don’t think there is an Asian model as such. But Asian societies are unlike Western ones. The fundamental difference between Western concepts of society and government and East Asian concepts—when I say East Asians, I mean Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, as distinct from South-East Asia, which is a mix between the Sinic and the Indian, though Indian culture also emphasizes similar values—is that Eastern societies believe that the individual exists in the context of his family. He is not pristine and separate. The family is part of the extended family, and then friends and the wider society. The ruler or the government does not try to provide for a person what the family best provides.”
While raising all the relevant questions about how the West will respond to the rise of Asia, Mahbubani steers clear of any cultural arrogance. This is one of the great strengths of the book. It is level-headed and empirical.
Yet, Mahbubani does not quite settle an equally important issue: Is Asia prepared to take on a greater role in the world? Sitting at the high table can also make great demands on countries. Leadership in global institutions means having to make compromises to keep the system going.
For all its faults, the US has been a responsible power over the past 50 years. It has protected and nurtured the global economic system. Are countries such as India and China ready to look beyond their immediate strategic concerns when it comes to the great global issues of the day, such as currency realignments and climate change? Don’t bet on it as yet. The pride that the Indian government displays each time it stalls global trade talks reveals a petty mindset. That has to change.
Asian arrogance is as unwanted as Western arrogance.
Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, the editorial pages editor of Mint, writes the column Café Economics every Wednesday.